Having escaped her washroom from Louis-Charles, Birdie was forced to settle with skipping her daily soak. It seemed like the right choice at the time, although she quickly realized that it would bring inevitable consequences. Beneath her bonnet, her hair began to stick out in all directions and curl from the morning's heat. A sheen of sweat was seen clear as day on her skin.
She felt absolutely revolting.
For once, Birdie was relieved to be sitting alone at the dining table. Her parents would have their petit déjeuner at eight o'clock each day, so she often found herself eating on her own regardless.
Digging into her eggs and square of cornbread with one hand, she scratched her perspiring underarms with the other. She scrunched her nose at a wetness pooling through her frock.
She considered sneaking a dip during her afternoon nap. No one with half a mind would dare disturb her then; the first and last time someone tried, they nearly got one of Birdie's prized music boxes to the face – even when it was to inform her of Grandmother Maria's untimely death.
Before she could devise a plan, the double doors swung open. In walked Marietta, clinging to Louis-Charles and chattering about which type of flowers thrive better in the winter compared to any other season, accompanied by Regulus. "You see, my spicebushes – they were an anniversary present. Our tenth, in fact. Anyways, they typically bloom mid-January. It takes them until early April to come to fruition," she rambled on.
As her mother laid a hand across her collarbone, adorned with the emerald rivière, Birdie's stomach dropped to her feet. A lump of guilt – and possibly the cornbread – sat thick in her throat. She knew that Marietta was gullible at fault, but to watch her blindly accept this man as her kin and don a piece of counterfeit jewelry was sickening.
Louis-Charles was clearly eating up every ounce of Marietta's attention. He slowed at the sight of Birdie. "That sure sounds fascinatin', Marietta. I'd love to visit your garden in the– Ah, Birdie! I wasn't expecting to see your lovely visage this early in the day. How did you sleep?"
"Jus' fine – thank you very much," she mumbled through a mouthful of egg yolk. She continued to chomp at her food and rub at her clothes, annoyed by his show of surprise.
"Bonjour, Birdie," her mother spoke. "Are we going to behave ourselves today?"
"Bonjour, Mother. I will let you know once I decide."
There was a distinct lesion on the left side of Louis-Charles' fac. She grinned at her handiwork. It had healed somewhat between now and their incident in her washroom. No longer was blood flowing steadily from the wound, but an ugly cut remained and would likely leave a scar in the future.
It was her turn to feign ignorance. "Oh, good heavens, Oncle! What happened to your cheek?" she gasped, widening her eyes and seizing her heart in alarm.
Reflexively, Louis-Charles touched the gash. He let the ghost of a scowl mar his features before training a mocking leer in its place. He chuckled, "It's nothing to worry yourself with, dearest. A bit of a slip whilst shaving is all."
"But I thought you sai—"
"I know what I said, Bridgewater," Louis-Charles interrupted. Then he smiled at his great-niece, "In spite of her overall nature, Marietta, you can't deny that Birdie can be a peach."
"When she feels like it, yes. More often than not, she reminds me of a lemon," Marietta acquiesced. She called Cordelia to have the table arranged for their guests and insisted on whipping up her special coffee crumble cakes. Despite her daughter's glare of protest, she assured, "I won't be a moment!"
Birdie observed, narrow-eyed, as Louis-Charles and Regulus situated themselves in front of her, much like the previous night. They were given the same portion of eggs and cornbread but were treated to hunks of pork as well. Mimicking beasts, they tore into their meal. Sounds of ripping skin were heard as they knifed their rations and plucked them into their mouths. Specks of juice rained onto the tablecloth.
She scoffed, "Were you two raised in the same pen?"
Both men stopped their slobbering and looked at her, almost at a complete loss for words. Though Regulus regained his composure first and growled, "That's funny comin' from you, you li'l—!"
"What is that supposed to mean, you disgusting—?"
"Ah, ah, ah! I believe Regulus is trying to say, dear Birdie, that you of all people shouldn't be waving a finger at our table manners," Louis-Charles intervened. He motioned to the corner of his curled lip.
Sure enough, Birdie felt a cluster of crumbs when she pawed at her mouth. She was quick to wipe any trace of food from her face. A blush crept down her neck as the men roared with laughter.
The obnoxious noise came to a halt the second she reached across the table and struck Louis-Charles' glass of orange juice. It went spilling onto his lap. "Ach!" he choked and jumped to his feet.
"Whoops! Silly me," Birdie jeered.
Upon hearing the commotion, Marietta and Cordelia rushed in. "What in the world is happening in here–? Oh, Oncle, your clothes!" she gasped. She hurried forward and examined the bright stain that covered most of his waistcoat and once-white trousers. "Birdie Antonia, what did you do?"
"I believe I was doing dear Oncle a favor. He looked positively wretched in those rags."
"Just you wait when your père hears about this. He'll have you locked in that nursery till you're old and gray.”
Linking her elbow with Louis-Charles', Marietta soothed, "Come, Oncle, we'll have Jonathan escort us into town. I know this wonderful little shop, Pascal's. There, they'll have you fitted in the finest garments from here to Tennessee!"
Louis-Charles chuckled and followed as she pulled him towards the double doors. "If you continue to spoil me, Marietta, I'll have no choice but to overstay my welcome," he said, patting her hand. He turned his head slightly to wink at Birdie.
"Nonsense. It's the least I can do to make up for my fiend of a daughter."
It was well past noon, and their guests had not yet returned from Pascal's Attire and Wares. In their absence, Birdie was reveling in the normalcy that she had grown so accustomed to. From meddling with the maids' duties to counting the shelves in the library, from admiring her mother's flowers to loafing on the porch swing.
She kicked her feet, lazily back and forth. Her eyelids started to flutter closed before a sudden clang made her sit upright. The noise came from the bottom-right sector of the cotton field and was succeeded by a band of angry hollering. A sandy-haired figure sprouted through the curtains of white and galloped towards the sitting area at great speed.
Birdie sighed. It was none other than Timothy Behlmer.
The Behlmer's, Ike and Geraldine, were farmers that mostly took care of livestock like cattle and goats, with some chickens. They had no workers or slaves to call their own. All they had was their only son, their pride and joy, Timothy. He was deemed a 'miracle baby' on account of following a slew of miscarriages and being born with half a heart.
But this rare defect didn't stop him from causing trouble in the neighborhood. Ten years old and already known for his skills in lock-picking and vandalism, Timothy was the thorn in everyone's side. This included the Liddell's – more specifically, Birdie.
He skidded to a stop at the bottom of their porch. Then he hopped up the staircase, ignoring how his bare feet left traces of dirt on the wood. "Hey, birdbrain, you wanna help a fella out?"
"Not particularly, no."
"Aw, but those apes are gonna tell yer papa I was nosin' around yer cotton again!"
"Well, were you?"
"That ain't important now," he muttered as he brushed some whisps of fiber off his sleeves. "Jus' tell 'im I was here with you the whole time, alright?"
Birdie barked a laugh, "No one would believe such a thing. Besides, I would rather—"
"You'd rather be seen wit' Lucifer 'imself. You've said before."
"—So, unless you want a warm bottom, I suggest you get on home before my père sees you."
The farm boy screwed his eyebrows together and pulled his lips into the nastiest of frowns. He said, "Jus' 'cause yer older an' smarter don't mean yer better than me."
"Oh, that's not why. I think I'm better than you 'cause I'm richer."
"Fine, birdbrain. I'll be seein' you.”
Timothy sulked down the steps. He picked up speed at the sound of frantic voices from the foyer, and was out of sight when Oswald treaded onto the porch.
"Where's he gone? Where's the boy gone this time?" he fumed. “Birdie, did you see Timothy Behlmer run by here?"
"Why, no, Father."
"Well, if you do see the boy, tell him that he is no longer welcome on our estate. He lost the privilege the moment he stepped foot in my cotton fields," Oswald grumbled. He plopped himself down beside Birdie and combed his fingers through her curls as though to calm his nerves. She keened at his affectionate touch.
She hummed, "It will be my pleasure."
"Hm, sweet girl." As he began to rock the swing, he maneuvered her head to rest on his shoulder.
The father-daughter pair sat, basking in the much sought-after silence. Birdie couldn't remember the last time she and Oswald had a bit to themselves. She had always fought her older sisters for his attention, but was drowned out by their much larger and louder forms. Even when all five of them married, she still struggled with his engrossing studies and work obligations.
She didn't want this moment to end.
"Oh, look, Birdie. Your mère has returned," Oswald said, moving away to welcome his wife back with a kiss. He didn't notice how Birdie pouted and crossed her arms or how she stared menacingly at Louis-Charles.
He shook the men's hands and voiced his admiration, "What marvelous suits. Marietta certainly has an eye for thread, and Pascal is no stranger to glamor."
Louis-Charles puffed like a peacock at the praise. There was no denying that his new ensemble was stunning. The dark jacket framed his shoulders and fit his waist, and his trousers hugged his middle admirably. His squeaky leather shoes tapped against the stone pathway.
He waved his gilded walking cane in the air. "Thank you, Oswald. Thank you. I feel positively gladdened by my niece's graciousness."
Regulus grunted, "Kind'uh tight under the arms."
"Birdie, doesn't Oncle look nice?" Marietta chirped. She had herself curled in Oswald's embrace, successfully taking Birdie's place.
"Pascal has really outdone himself this time, Mother. He somehow made Oncle look less like a frog and more like a toad. You know, there is a striking difference between the two. Toads aren't as slimy," said Birdie. She delighted at Louis-Charles visibly deflating.
"Alright, time for a nap, young lady. To the nursery," Oswald ordered.
Groaning, she sent Louis-Charles one last flower and stomped off the porch.